Michigan State Police confirmed Monday that Travis Fitch is in custody, and still in a hospital, but no other information regarding his arrest in Williams County or the possible charges against him has been released.
Fitch, 29, of Fremont, Indiana, reportedly fled from law enforcement into a woods south of Nettle Lake the afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 17, and apparently remained outdoors in below freezing temperatures until he was found by family members Friday afternoon.
Authorities have said the incident started with an alleged vehicle theft from Clear Lake, Indiana. Town Marshal Chris Emerick took the initial call at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“We got the call from a Clear Lake resident who found his sport utility vehicle and trailer with two snowmobiles missing,” Emerick said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “He said it happened overnight; last saw them at 9:30 or 10 p.m. Tuesday, woke up Wednesday and they were gone.”
After they were taken, the vehicle and trailer were separated.
“Another resident familiar with the victim actually found the SUV parked on the side of the road near State Route 49 in Hillsdale County, Michigan,” Emerick said. “She called police and continued home but a short time later (still on State Route 49 but in Williams County) she recognized the trailer attached to another vehicle and called police again. At some point the driver (later identified as Fitch) stopped and fled from the vehicle.”
Michigan State Police received that tipster’s first 911 call and recovered the SUV.
The Williams County Sheriff’s Office received her other call at 2:27 p.m. on Feb. 17. Deputies recovered the second vehicle and trailer, without the snowmobiles, in the eastbound lane of County Road P.50 at Ohio 49, north of Edon. While on scene, they also observed a subject (now believed to be Fitch) in the woods and initiated the search.
At 2:59 p.m. that day, the sheriff’s office deployed two K-9 units to track Fitch in the area of county roads 6 and P.50. The Ohio State Highway Patrol set up a perimeter around the area with deputies from Steuben County, Indiana, police officers from Edon and Montpelier and firefighters from the Northwest Township Fire Department. Over the course of five and a half hours, Williams County special deputies on horseback and snowmobiles were dispatched to search the woods while the OSHP’s Air One helicopter scanned it with thermal imaging cameras.
The search was called off at 8 p.m. that day with Fitch still at large. At 3:24 p.m. Thursday the Williams County Sheriff’s Office posted a photo of Fitch requesting information on his whereabouts from the public.
“We received a concern call and a request for a well-being check,” Chief Deputy Jeff Lehman said after the photo was released. “We want to locate him and make sure he’s OK.”
In September 2020, the Herald Republican newspaper in Angola, Indiana, reported Fitch had been arrested on a Hillsdale County, Michigan, fugitive warrant charging him with absconding from probation. He was originally arrested and charged with cocaine possession, possession of stolen property and fleeing.
On Dec. 18, 2015, The Daily Reporter newspaper in Coldwater, Michigan, reported that Fitch had been sentenced to 23 months in prison for vehicle theft and 15 months for drug possession. The vehicle was a 2005 Chevrolet Equinox parked in front of a residence in Montgomery, Michigan. The keys were in it and Fitch reportedly simply drove off. The Hillsdale County Sheriff’s Office tracked the vehicle through its onboard GPS and arrested Fitch at the Whispering Pines Apartments in Coldwater. He was also charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana. He was extradited back to Indiana, where he had been released from prison a month earlier after a 2010 conviction for dealing methamphetamine.
On Aug. 3, 2018, the Herald Republican reported that Fitch was arrested after a high-speed pursuit in a 2003 Pontiac stolen from Hillsdale County.
The chase started when an employee at a fast food restaurant in Fremont reported three men in a vehicle at their drive-thru window were intoxicated. Steuben County sheriff’s deputies attempted to stop the vehicle, but the driver fled west across LaGrange County, then turned north into St. Joseph County, Michigan. The pursuit ended when Fitch drove through a locked gate at the Sturgis, Michigan, wastewater treatment plant and crashed into a sewage lagoon. He was arrested and charged with felony fleeing and eluding, possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute, possession of a stolen vehicle and a variety of misdemeanor charges related to operating a vehicle while intoxicated, drug possession and property damage.
No injuries were reported in the chase but the Sturgis Police Department reported, “the jail cell where he was lodged had to be thoroughly cleaned after the accident.”
Fitch’s family started their own search with other county residents in the area at approximately 10 a.m. Thursday.
At 3:30 p.m. Friday, “He was found in the woods between County Road 6 and County Road 5, and County Road P.50 and County Road Q.50,” said Terena Miller, who owns the property.
Williams County EMS Director Jim Hicks confirmed two ambulances were on the scene Wednesday, but none were requested after Fitch was found Friday. “I have no idea how he was transported,” Hicks said.
“The family came up because he never came out of the woods,” family spokesperson Jenna Fitch said when she contacted The Bryan Times Monday afternoon.
“We never gave up for two days,” she said. “We called (the Williams County Sheriff’s Office) several times a day, begged and begged for help. Me, my aunts, my sisters. All the detectives told us we were lying, that we were harboring him. Why would we do that if we were filing a missing person report? We weren’t lying. I wish they would have helped us and had faith in us. We called and begged for help. It was craziness.”
The family started its search at County Road 3.50 and walked east.
“Honestly if it hadn’t been for this guy, I don’t even know his name, we wouldn’t have found him. We were a mile or two away,” Jenna Fitch said.
“He came by on a snowmobile and told us where the cops left off,” she said. “He took us out to a little deer hut, same place he took the cops so they could track with their dogs ... If they would have tracked 300 feet they would have found him.
“The cops had a helicopter out there picking up a heat signature,” she said. “They called it off saying it was a deer, but it was Travis. They gave up instead of walking 300 feet into the woods.
“I talked to a deputy in Edon who said he got close enough to pull a gun on him, but Travis flipped him the finger,” she said. “Confirmed. My thing is, if he was close enough to see that, why didn’t he Tase him? We talked to a detective in Steuben County and he said they knew he never came out.
“We’re not saying Travis was perfect,” Jenna Fitch said. “We know he shouldn’t have been doing the things he was doing but ... I just don’t know. It doesn’t matter if it was his fault. The cops never should have gave up. Protect and serve. We feel the cops neglected us when we filed the missing person report. We just wanted him home.
“Travis begged and prayed the cops would find him,” she said. “Shouted to God but he couldn’t call out. He was frozen already. The hospital says it’ll be over a year before he comes home and two weeks before we know if they’ll have to take his left leg. His feet are gone. All the nerves are dead. He’ll have to learn to walk all over again. His kidneys were frozen solid when we found him. They had to take off two gallons of fluid.”
Sheriff’s office response
Williams County Sheriff Tom Kochert was in Columbus attending the State Attorney General’s Sheriff’s Academy last week. He responded to requests for an interview Monday with a text deferring to Chief Deputy Jeff Lehman.
Lehman responded by phone Tuesday morning.
“The case is still under investigation and that’s where it stands at this point,” he said. “Mr. Fitch was located; not just exactly sure who located him. We’re still working on that. He was taken to a hospital for medical treatment and we haven’t had a chance to interview him in regards to anything else. We’re not sure when that will be.”
He said the K-9 units were ineffective Wednesday because of weather conditions.
“The scent is greatly diminished and often times does not work in extreme cold,” he said. “I’ve seen rare occasions where they’ve been able to find someone but with the dense snow and extreme cold it does not work often.”
Lehman confirmed the OSHP helicopter picked up a heat signature in or around the woods Wednesday, but said: “There were some issues with that that I’m not going to go into.”
There were also issues with potentially false reports.
“We received several calls from people claiming to be family,” Lehman said. “When we finally talked to the family, they said they (the previous callers) were not.”
Lehman also said that deputies were in the area looking for Fitch Thursday and Friday. “We spoke to people, neighbors in the area, and asked them to call us if they found anything,” he said. “They did and we went back at different times patrolling.”
The close contact, when Fitch allegedly flipped off a deputy Wednesday, was not close enough. “They would have been about a block apart, well beyond the range of Taser wires,” Lehman said.
“We were out there five and a half hours,” Lehman said. “We went way above and beyond. We checked with legal counsel and other sheriff’s offices before we called it off.
“If it had been a child or an elderly person with memory issues it would have been an entirely different situation,” he said. “We would have stayed out there until whenever. (Travis Fitch) made a conscious decision to flee from us. At any time he had the opportunity to walk in any direction and give himself up.”
Deputy Rex Snyder of the Clear Lake Marshall’s Office said Travis Fitch has not been charged in the theft of the SUV, trailer or snowmobiles but their investigation has been turned over to the Steuben County prosecutor for review.